Tshletshy, Washington, US
|Usual Difficulty||IV-V (for normal flows)|
|Avg. Gradient||143 fpm|
|Max Gradient||340 fpm|
A guidebook author and his buddy launch a three day, class V expedition through the wilds of the Olympic Peninsula.
Hanging from my perch 80 feet above the river, I was thinking we could have run the class VI canyon with less risk than we were taking on these crumbly gorge walls. And I was facing my own worst nightmare---a flooded class VI canyon with no apparent portage.
This whole nerve-wracking trip had started two years earlier when I had seen slides from Scott Matthew's and Sprague Ackley's exploratory trip. "The best whitewater in Washington," they claimed. I was seduced by shots of spectacular ledge drops in amazing gorges.
Scott sent me some notes from his trip:
Tshletshy Creek Class IV-V logged at 150-200 cfs Length 12.8 miles + 7 miles on Queets River Gradient 143 feet/mile ( 50 to 340 ) Time required 3 to 4 days 1 day to hike in (11 miles) 2 days to boat the river (20 hours) Number of rapids Class III 104 Class IV 67 Class V 20 Class VI to unrunnable 10
I showed this to my buddy Mike Deckert and we were off. Tshletshy Creek is a tributary to the Queets River on the west side of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Not only is Tshletshy hard to say and spell, it's even more difficult to access. There are no roads anywhere near this watershed, which lies within Olympic National Park-an untouched temperate rain forest. The world's largest Douglas Fir and Alaska Cedar are attractions along the trip.
First we hiked the empty kayaks seven miles and 3100 vertical feet to the divide separating Tshletshy from the Quinault. It was April and the snow made sliding the boats through the upper meadows very easy.
Two weeks later we returned with three day's worth of self support gear and we headed for "the best whitewater in the state." When we reached the boats we loaded some gear in them and carried the rest in packs. Once we started into the Tshletshy drainage, the trail went from bad to non-existent. After traversing several blowdowns and avalanche chutes we were exhausted zombies. We sat and rested, staring at the headwaters of the creek. Small chutes of snow fed several tiny tribs. We scrambled down about a half mile and reached the creek; it was about 15 cfs!
We stared in stunned disappointment, wondering how far we would have to walk before there would be enough volume to paddle. We were so exhausted we made camp, just as the rain began. No surprise in one of the wettest valleys in the U.S. We each had small tarps and soon we were resting comfortably and cooking ramen on Mike's stove. We joked about waking up in the morning with ample water to paddle. Soon I was asleep on my bed of moss.
The next morning we discovered our dreams had come true. About 75 cfs of rusty brown water was flowing past our camp. An amazing flow, considering the drainage area was only about 4 square miles!
We put on and after a half mile we came to the first gorge. Scouting revealed 100 feet of drop over five falls. An easy portage on river left put that gorge behind us.
At the second gorge we scouted a big rapid that went around a turn to the right. I walked down and scouted the turn; there was a clear route along the left wall. Looking down from above, I didn't realize that it dropped about ten feet. I told Mike it was okay along the left and headed down. I eddied out just in time to see Mike's eyes bulging as he flew around the corner and plunged over the drop.
We were starting to have some real fun. Just below the second gorge we spotted a huge bull elk whose antlers were adorned in rich velvet.
Another mile brought us to the "Tshlasm." This is the third gorge, which drops about 150 feet in several falls. Another easy portage on the left and we were back in our boats, making good time through endless class III - V drops. The water level was now about 500 cfs and the creek was starting to have a real punch.
By afternoon several close calls had left us tired and scared. The water level was at least 750 cfs and the holes were becoming a real terror. At one point we braved a trashy boulder-choked mess on the left, just to avoid a small falls with a benign hole on the right.
Our judgment was warped. We needed to find a camp, but we hadn't seen anything but gorges for hours. Then, there it was, a perfect spot. This turned out to be the only campsite in six miles of demanding canyon. At lower water levels it would take quite a push to get there in one day.
We set up while the rain continued to fall. As we sat cooking our dinner, knowing that the river would continue to rise, I was terrified, thinking, "You got yourself into this mess and now you're going to have to get yourself out."
The next morning the river was huge. Brown exploding waves carried debris speeding off around the corner. We estimated the flow to be about 1800 cfs. As we ate breakfast we talked about laying over a day or so, but decided if we didn't show up on schedule, our wives might initiate a rescue.
We put on and blasted the first mile of brown raceway, only stopping to scout one giant rapid ending in a huge hole. We stopped to scout a class IV drop that slammed into and under a logjam with amazing force. I wanted to portage, but the cliffs were vertical or worse. There was one place to go under the logs on the right, but the current was moving to the left.
As I got into my boat I felt I was taking a big chance. My fear made the rapid seem class VI. One missed stroke and I'd face my demise. I watched Mike hit a few holes and pull right safely. This gave me more confidence, and I made the move easily.
But after ducking under the trees, I saw Mike scrambling along the left, trying to get into an eddy. I pulled into the slow water on the right and started treading water along the wall. Mike could get out of his boat but he couldn't see much. He signaled the right looked better.
It didn't matter; I couldn't tread water any longer, so I headed down the right side. Bumbling through the class V drop that followed seemed anti-climactic after all our close calls.
We burned off another mile of great water, even stopping at several playspots, easing our anxiety a bit. Then we came to a narrow gorge with a severe horizon. Scouting revealed a ten foot falls ramping into a violent flush around a blind turn. Smooth high walls kept us from seeing much around the corner, but there appeared to be another significant falls ahead. I couldn't even think of running these drops.
A small crumbly gully headed up on the right, so up we went. After a horrendous workout roping loaded boats up the cliffs, we dead ended about twenty feet from the top. We were so exhausted we just sat, supported by a Yew tree that was threatening to tear loose from the fragile walls.
Mike decided to go back down and attempt another route. We hoped he would be able to lower a rope from above. Hanging from this perch, I was thinking it would have been easier to flush over the falls, as compared to crawling along those cliffs, tooth and nail. After about twenty minutes I heard Mike yelling from above.
He lowered the rope and pulled the boats up. His route had been exposed and scary, so I decided to use the rope for the last pitch also. With nothing but flaky rock to climb on, I went hand over hand. But about 3/4 of the way up my strength ran out. I hung for a while with my foot stuffed into a root hold.
Looking up at Mike, I could see he was concerned. I thought about going down, but I was too tired. I had about a five second talk with myself and then I went for it, using all the strength I had left to reach the top.
From here we started what was to be an hour long trudge covering about 200 yards. When we got back to the river it treated us to a great mile of boating, class III and IV with a couple of class V's. In one of the bigger drops Mike was pushed left into a big hole. A long ride followed by a rear ender into an ever bigger hole. After another long ride, Mike wound up at the bottom, laughing.
This was some great boating. As the river eased up a bit we found some dynamic playspots. Soon kayaks were flying and paddles were twirling.
Confident grins accompanied us as we flushed out into the mighty Queets. We enjoyed the last few miles of big water, while we tried to spot the world's largest Douglas Fir.
By the time we reached the take-out we were flying high. As we drove the shuttle we relived the events of the last three days. I had really pushed myself, both physically and mentally. Neither of us had ever experienced a watershed so untouched, so remote, so special. The world we had traversed was enchanted. The gorges were stunning and the whitewater was humbling.
Someday, I'll do it again.
lat/long very approximate by tiger map server
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